One year in - My postdoc at ZIB

20th March 2015

People always say that time goes by so quickly. It is such a funny expression but at times it makes absolute sense. It doesn't feel like a year has passed since arriving in Berlin. However, so much has happened in the past year that it would be silly to not acknowledge what I have done. I want to reflect on how I have spent my time and determine whether there are things that I could have done differently.

Transitioning from student to postdoc

In blogs written over the past year I have discussed topics related to getting a job in Germany and what it is like as an early career researcher. In addition I have included a few blogs about some of the travel I have done in relation to my position. These blogs provide a window into my career and experiences as a postdoc, but there is much more that happens behind the scenes.

Moving to a new country and into a new research group brings its challenges. It also brings many valuable experiences. This is why you move, to learn things that you would not get the exposure to in your current environment. It has definitely been a learning year for me. Starting in a new research group meant that I needed to start new research projects. Also, as discussed in a previous blog, it is useful to create a new group of collaborators. Generally joining a new research group and forming a group of collaborators go hand in hand, but sometimes you need to work on them.

While completing my PhD I felt like I had a very clear direction and knew exactly what I needed to do. This is generally true. You have one large goal, which is writing a thesis and finishing your studies. It made me feel like I was a good researcher; working on interesting things, writing papers and getting the job of completing the PhD done. Once you succeed and that goal is gone, you are left trying to work out what your next research goals should be.

To be honest, when I arrived at ZIB I felt really lost. I no longer had the goal of completing my PhD and was left searching for what I should achieve next. There was no set project for me to work on, so I couldn't even use that to get myself started again. It was almost like being back at the start of your PhD, where you are left trying to work out what is worthwhile researching for three years of your life.

I tried to make things simple and set a goal of writing X papers a year. My original value for X may have been a little too ambitious, but not achieving the goal doesn't mean that I really failed at being a researcher. My postdoc position has me working in a field that I only vaguely knew about. So, trying to come up with research projects proved to be very difficult. My approach involved trying to create a group of collaborators, as explained here. I was successful at this, but it didn't completely satisfy my goal of writing X papers.

The transitioning result

The transitioning and starting a new job went well, but I think that I could have done better.

So what went wrong? First, in order to have collaborations you need to have projects. If you have too many projects running at one time, the completion of each takes longer. While I had a number of projects and if I managed to complete all of them in a year I would have easily satisfied my goal, there are just not enough hours in the day for the required amount of work. Second, all of my collaborations were initially with people outside my research group. There were two reasons for this, i) it was difficult to start projects with people at ZIB, mainly because they already had projects of their own; and ii) I felt like I needed to get researching as quickly as possible and the only way I knew how was to contact people that I already knew and wanted to work with. Since I was working on projects outside of ZIB, it felt as though I was not really part of the research group. This also made it really difficult to feel successful when I reflected on my own work performance at different times during the year. To remedy this, I spent much time trying to get projects started at ZIB, which took time away from actually doing research. Also, when I did manage to get projects started, this just added to the list of things that I was already working on. Making me even more time stressed.

Now having multiple projects running at one time is not completely a bad thing. One major problem lied in the fact that I started multiple projects at the one time. There is a lot of time involved in the initiation of the project and getting up-to-speed with everything that you need to know. But, there is also a lot of down time when you get stuck on the research or you are waiting for drafts to be returned. So, I feel that having the group of collaborators is a good thing, but I just need to manage the work load a little better.

The end result of all of this is that I am still plugging away at a number of different projects. One difficulty I have found is that instigating collaborations means that you are the lead on the project. So I am finding that I have to do most of the work. This is very time consuming and it sometimes makes me feel like I would be better off just working on my own. However, the one great advantage of collaborating is that you get a different perspective. That is sometimes invaluable.

Unfortunately, even with the collaborations that I started I didn't manage to meet my goal of writing X papers in my first year. However, my second year should see this goal reached. In some ways this really shows the ebbs and flows of academic work and that this is something that you just have to be prepared for.

Working on projects

Work at ZIB has been a great experience. There are many different projects going on and many people are academically interested. However, even though there are many different projects, a lot of these were in progress. As mentioned previously, it was difficult to join in on what other people were working on.

This follows on from the previous section, I needed to find projects that I could work on with people in my research group. In trying to find projects, I also took on a number of personal projects with collaborators. Since it took a little bit of time to establish work with my research group, I ended up starting more projects than can be efficiently handled. In the end, however, I managed to start and perform some interesting research with my group.

One project that I started here at ZIB is related to the simplex method and decomposition approaches. Since the LP solver SoPlex, which is based on the simplex algorithm, was developed and is maintained at ZIB meant that I had good access knowledge and experience. It also involved a lot of coding with SoPlex, so that made the job very interesting.

I was also fortunate to be asked by my supervisor Thorsten Koch to work on the SCIP based Steiner tree problem in graphs solver, SCIP-Jack. Steiner tree problems are something that I knew about but nothing I had any experience in. This is a good example of things that you get exposed to by joining different research groups. Thorsten is very experienced with Steiner tree problems, so there was much that I was able to learn from him. Additionally, doing this work meant that I was able to travel to the DIMACS Workshop in the US.

I keep saying that I have started a number of projects, but I have not said what these projects involve. As a broad overview of my work: I have continued my research in aviation applications with a tail assignment project, finishing off a mixed integer programming model for HIV sequence analysis, performing bioinformatics analysis of HIV sequences, investigating decomposition in the simplex method and involved in developing a general purpose Steiner tree problems in graphs solver.

Conferences and travel

Being in Europe has many advantages. One such advantage is the ease of travelling to conferences and to visit colleagues and other research groups. During the last year I was able to travel to three conferences/workshops and visit another research group. To put this in perspective, from Australia I would have only been able to do one of these trips. Berlin is very well located for work travel, which is something I really enjoy.

I will not go into details about my travels here as I have written about them in other blogs. Please have a look around my website if you wish to find out more.

Where to from here?

So I have completed one year at ZIB and have signed up for another two. There is much that you can do in three years and I am looking forward to seeing what I am able to achieve. I hope that I am able to achieve that goal of writing X papers, or maybe I will be satisfied with writing X-1.

There much that I have learnt throughout my first year at ZIB (my first year in an academic career). One of the biggest things I learnt is that it can be very hard to start up in a new research group. What felt hard for me was that completing the PhD made be feel like I was a good researcher and I could do anything. Being a good researcher is not the only thing required when starting fresh in a new group, you also need a bit of perseverance and some luck.

I am also learning that things work a lot slower in academics than industry. It takes time to read papers, do the research and work, and then write the papers. Acknowledging that things take time will make you much happier. Also, my projects have all progressed at different speeds, so I am now in a good situation where there is downtime that I can fill with different work. If I have to start work from scratch again, I will not start a large number of projects at one time.

It has been a good, challenging year and I am looking forward to the next. I plan to write many more blogs about my experiences as an early career researcher and of my time while living abroad.